Is Net Neutrality All That Separates the U.S. from Authoritarianism?

Victor Pickard, associate professor of communication at the University Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School, talked with Jacobin's Meagan Day recently about the threat to the internet posed by the Federal Communication Commission's looming decision to do away with net neutrality and the open internet. It's a great interview in full, but it's this part that is perhaps most frightening and most dangerous as the authoritarian bent of popular vote loser Donald Trump continues to be almost completely unchecked by Congress.


If we were to lose net neutrality protections, which by all appearances we will, that would suddenly create all kinds of vulnerabilities for independent media. There are clear dangers associated with vertical integration, where the company that owns the pipes is able to control the dissemination of information, and able to set the terms by which we access that information. When we think about, for instance, dissenting political news sources that don’t have the resources to compete in a pay-to-play media environment, we see that there are obvious political hazards.

And more than that, we could start to see scenarios where ISPs don't like the political views that are being disseminated from a particular news outlet. Without net neutrality they would be free to block or slow down content from those sites. There have been cases like this already. In 2005, the company Telus, which is the second largest telecommunications company in Canada, began blocking access to a server that hosted a website that supported a labor strike against Telus. Anyone involved in journalism or activism should be concerned about this kind of retaliation and censorship.

It's likely not going to be just independent media that becomes vulnerable. Consider Trump's jihad against CNN, and how he appears to be using his Department of Justiceto block AT&T from acquiring Time Warner in retribution for CNN's coverage of him. We don't know how this particular story is going to play out yet (and yes, there are reasons to cheer this merger not going through) but it's clear that Trump and his administration will retaliate against the media.

The open internet has been essential for the resistance and for new civil rights movements. It has "decentralized the media and allowed black activists in a modern movement against police and state violence to bypass discriminatory media gatekeepers and reveal the extent of the state’s abuse." The ability to record police abuses in real time and to disseminate that footage quickly—or even in real time—and cheaply makes the open internet the primary tool for fighting for social justice.

It makes its potential loss at the point in time, with the Trump administration in power, so much more dangerous for this nation's future.

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